Tag Archives: Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Fictions and Foreigners: Borges and Alastair Reid

19 Aug

borges in library

The first story I read by Borges, at the age of eighteen, was Tlön, Uqbar, Tertius Orbis. Although the name would have meant nothing to me at the time, the translation was by Alastair Reid. Forty years later, I get to meet the man, now 88 years of age, a little frayed around the edges, but alert and bright eyed as a moorland bird. He lives in New York but spends part of every summer in the Dumfries and Galloway region where he was born and raised. I have been advised that Alastair would prove an invaluable repository of experiences and anecdotes for my researches into Latin American literature, concerning, among others, Borges, Neruda and Gabriel García Márquez, all of whom he knew well – Borges, best of all. And so it was that one bright July morning I set out with my friend Tom Pow across the Dumfries countryside towards our rendezvous.

I have yet to transcribe the recording, but two things stood out in our conversation. Neither of them will be surprising to those who are familiar with the work of Borges, but they are fascinating to me nonetheless.

Alastair Reid

Alastair Reid, July 2014.

Translating Borges was, according to Alastair Reid, at times like re-translating something that had originally been written in English, and subsequently translated into Spanish. This, apparently, was due to Borges’ own familiarity and long use of the English language (he had an English grandmother, was brought up bilingual, and learned to read in English at an early age). The task of the translator, then, felt like rendering the story back into its original language, which Alastair described as a somewhat unsettling or daunting experience, and quite unlike translating other Spanish language writers.

The other thing that stood out for me in our talk was Alastair’s insistence that for Borges everything was a ficción, a fiction. As he puts it in his essay ‘Fictions’ (in the wonderful collection Outside In): ‘Borges referred to all his writings – essays, stories, poems, reviews – as fictions. He never propounded any particular theory of fictions, yet it is the key to his particular lucid, keen, and ironic view of existence.’ I was dimly aware of this, but not to the extent that this infiltrated his approach to literature and the world. In his essay, Alastair Reid elaborates:

A fiction is any construct of language – a story, an explanation, a plan, a theory, a dogma – that gives a certain shape to reality.

Reality, that which is beyond language, functions by mainly indecipherable laws, which we do not understand, and over which we have limited control. To give some form to reality, we bring into being a variety of fictions.

A fiction, it is understood, can never be true, since the nature of language is utterly different from the nature of reality.

And so on.

Alastair Reid’s essays contain so many observations and aperçus about the writers he has worked with (the 1976 essay ‘Basilisk’s Eggs’ is another gem) it would do them little justice to summarize. And that is only half the story: some of Reid’s most impressive writing concerns his own reflections on travel and identity: on the one side his Scottish beginnings, or ‘roots’ (a word he treats with caution), on the other the years of wandering. Perhaps my favourite is ‘Notes on being a Foreigner’ in which the author makes astute and (to my mind) accurate observations on that state or condition – one that a person is probably born to – as opposed to, say, a tourist or an expatriate.

‘Tourists are to foreigners as occasional tipplers are to alcoholics – they take strangeness and alienation in small, exciting doses, and besides, they are well fortified against loneliness . . .

. . . An expatriate shifts uncomfortably, because he still retains, at the back of his mind, the awareness that he has a true country, more real to him than any other he happens to have selected. Thus he is only at ease with other expatriates . . .

. . . The foreigner’s involvement is with where he is. He has no other home. There is no secret landscape claiming him, no roots tugging at him. He is, if you like, properly lost, and so in a position to rediscover the world, form outside in.’

As for being ‘properly lost’ – this is a theme to be continued ( if I make it back to Wales).

A Journey into Memory

29 Jun

 

Bouillon: Panorama

Bouillon: Panorama

When I remember things from childhood or early adulthood, it often feels as though I am a passive subject, a receptacle or vessel, and the process of remembering becomes one in which memory is seeking me out, digging its way into my sense-making apparatus, rather than there being any sort of ‘I’ trying to make sense of the things remembered.

I am all too aware that as far as memories are concerned, it is the act of construction (more accurately reconstruction) that matters, of making the bits fit our self-narrativisation. In other words, as Gabriel García Márquez put it: ‘Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.’

Other People's CountriesIn his memoir, Other People’s Countries (subtitled A Journey into Memory), Patrick McGuinness asks fascinating questions about the way that identity is rooted in memory, more specifically in the way that we remember. “Trying to remember is itself a shock, a kind of detonation in the shadows, like dropping a stone into silt at the bottom of a pond: the water that had seemed clear is now turbid (that’s the first time I’ve ever used that word) and enswirled.” On reading this passage, which comes on Page 7 of the book, I found it noteworthy that McGuinness comments on the fact that he has not used the word ‘turbid’ before, which immediately casts suspicion on the observation, because one wonders whether, by commenting on memory’s cloudiness and turbidity, he has merely dislodged an existing memory, and is therefore, perhaps, not ‘using the word for the first time’ at all. And how telling that his use of the word ‘turbid’, and his comment on that usage, should immediately be followed by a neologism, ‘enswirled’.

These are nice illustrations of the way that language, our use of it, and its use of us, can be an element in the process of remembering. I am thinking in particular of those laden words which, when they crop up, immediately bring with them a sequence of memories and associations. I remember reading somewhere that our memory of language is the best reason why one should not translate into a language that is not our mother tongue. Words carry their own baggage with them: when you hear certain words, they spark off a whole sequence of associative meanings and memories, stretching back to childhood, that would simply not be available to an individual who has learned a language as an adult.

Childhood is the source of many of these word-memories. Like smells or taste (Proust’s oft-cited madeleine), words, long forgotten or unused, are capable of eliciting entire submerged worlds. But is it the memory of the word itself that achieves this, or the memory of a memory? As McGuinness speculates:

‘And as with so much of that childhood, I seem to remember not the things themselves but the memories of the things, as if the present I experienced them in was already slowing up and treacling over, fixing itself in a sepia wash.’

There are so many good things in this book, things that make you reach for a pencil, or else just stop in your tracks and reflect about the words you have just read. You can dip in, pick a page at random, and come out with some crystallized memory, or some jewel of detailed observation.

Other People’s Countries is, on one level, about a house in Bouillon, in the Ardennes region of Belgium. The house belonged to McGuinness’ family (his mother was Belgian) and was the author’s own childhood home. The book is divided into many short chapters: in this way they resemble the rooms of a large house, perhaps Quintilian’s House of Memory. I’ll conclude with one of my favourite chapters, titled ‘Keys’, which follows in its entirety:

‘Watching an old police procedural, probably a Maigret, sometime in the early eighties while convalescing from glandular fever (an illness I experienced more as convalescence than as actual illness: I felt as if I was simply recovering from something, rather than actually having the something to recover from in the first place), it came to me: a thief pushing a key into putty so that it’s outline would be caught in the relief and he could copy it, then burgle the house.

That was memory, I realised: a putty with which you make another key, which would open the same door, but never quite as well. In no time, you’d be burgling your own past with the slightly off-key key that always got you in though there was less and less to take.’

 

 

 

 

Of Dogs and Death

26 Apr

 

Dogs (such as this one, in the Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City) guided their people to the next world in Aztec culture.

Dogs (such as this one, in the Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City) guided their people to the next world in Aztec culture.

 

I wrote once before about Juan Rulfo and his novel Pedro Paramo, which has unparalleled status in Mexican literature and was a major influence on the young Gabriel García Márquez on his arrival in Mexico City in 1961.

I recently spent an evening reading Juan Rulfo’s short stories El llano en llama (translated into English both as The Plain in Flames and The Burning Plain). The stories were written in the long wake of the Mexican revolution, which coincided with Rulfo’s own childhood in an orphanage in Jalisco where, he said later, he often saw corpses hanging from posts, and that he spent all his time reading, “because you couldn’t go out for fear of getting shot.” These stories lead the reader into a space of silence and mystery, where reality breaks down and we enter a world that might be the antechamber to the afterlife, if the afterlife you have in mind is bleak, featureless, devoid of anything that could pass as life at all. But there are ghosts, at least.

The rhythms of Rulfo’s prose remind me of what Octavio Paz wrote about his archetypal Mexican: “his language is full of reticences, of metaphors and allusions, of unfinished phrases, while his silence is full of tints, folds, thunderheads, sudden rainbows, indecipherable threats . . .” There are threats aplenty, but they are unformed, vaguely defined and usually at some distance from the place of narration – yet always getting closer. Events take place in a half-light, as characters stumble towards yet another failure, or else death.

In the first story in Rulfo’s collection, ‘They have given us land’, a group of four landless men trudge across an arid plain. They have been promised land by some government official, but the ground beneath them is dry, stony, utterly unsuitable for planting anything that might grow. There had been more than twenty in their group, and they had horses and rifles, but now there are only four, and they have nothing, apart from a hen, which one of them keeps hidden inside his coat. “After walking for so many hours without coming across even the shadow of a tree, even the seed of a tree, nor the root of anything, we heard the barking of dogs.”

In another story ‘Don’t you hear the dogs barking’, a man carries his adult son on his back to try and find a doctor in the town of Tonaya. The younger man is wounded. It is night-time and the old man cannot see where he is going. As the pair draw near to the town we learn through the father’s faltering monologue that his son is a thief and a murderer, and he is only carrying him out of respect for the boy’s dead mother.

In these two stories, the barking of dogs indicates the existence, if not of hope precisely, then of some form of life, of human dwellings at the very least. But perhaps that is a false reading. In Mesoamerican cultures dogs were considered to have the powers to guide the dead to a new life after death, which explains why dogs have frequently been found buried with people in pre-Columbian sites.

And of course, at the end of Malcolm Lowry’s masterpiece, Under the Volcano, a dead dog is thrown down the ravine after the dead body of the unfortunate consul.

To come full circle, I discovered today that Rulfo had a bit-part in a Spanish film based on a short story by Gabriel García Márquez. The film is called En este pueblo no hay ladrones (In this town there are no thieves), and is exceptional in that the cast is made up of notable writers, visual artists and film directors, including Luis Buñuel (clearly relishing his performance as the town priest), Leonora Carrington, Arturo Ripstein, Alfonso Arao, Abel Quezada, and Gabriel García Márquez himself.

 

Juan Rulfo (left) and Abel Quezada having a beer, in a scene from ‘En este pueblo no hay ladrones’ based on a short story by Gabriel García Márquez.

Juan Rulfo (left) and Abel Quezada having a beer, in a scene from ‘En este pueblo no hay ladrones’ based on a short story by Gabriel García Márquez.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Masks and Death

24 Apr

day-of-the-dead-masks

 

When travelling, how do we begin to learn when someone is wearing a mask, with intent to deceive, given that we all wear masks much of the time?

We all know, as Hamlet says, that ‘one may smile, and smile, and be a villain’, and so I am thinking about how one goes about making judgements in another culture with people whose ideas about what qualifies as ‘sincerity’ is, perhaps, at a remove from one’s own culturally engendered version. And how, I wonder, do ‘I’ appear, the person who passes as myself (my own current person impersonator) with my own pretensions at ‘sincerity’, when for all my interlocutor knows, I am wearing a mask too, perhaps one more efficacious in design than his or her own.

These things trouble me. Should they? And how much does any of this matter, if, as Javier Marías reminds us in his novel The Infatuations (Los Enamoramientos), we are all novice ghosts: ‘whatever we do, we’ll only be waiting, like dead men on leave, as someone once said’.

A mask conceals, but to wear death on the outside conceals nothing, nada: it only reveals what we wear on the inside, what we carry inside us – our own eventual death – because we are ‘dead men on leave’ and one cannot conceal what can never be erased. So the mask of death, the grinning skull, is a double bluff, it is a way of anticipating our status as fragile ghosts, a way perhaps of trying to con or cheat or temporarily delay Death into thinking we are already dead, so he cannot choose us, he needn’t waste his time with us. This is not the same as the rather simplistic explanation I have read in tourist guides, namely that Mexicans like to display images of death and the skull in order to familiarise and trivialise it, to make it commonplace, to deny it real significance by flaunting it through macabre displays, even to the extent of eating chocolate skulls and skeletons. That, surely, would only constitute a bluff (a single bluff). And Death would not be fooled by that, surely?

How does a people – according to Claudio Lomnitz in his extraordinary book, Death and the Idea of Mexico – come to have death as its national icon? This question was addressed at length by Octavio Paz in his seminal study on the Mexican character, or what I am coming to think of as Mexicality, which manages to carry an almost-reference to mescal, the national liquor (usurped for many years by the Jalisco version, tequila, but making a fierce comeback among the middle classes, who previously eschewed it as a poor man’s drink). It is a view corroborated in Mexican culture by the prevalence of further imagery of death: not just in the ‘national icon’, as Lomnitz would have it, but in the extraordinarily graphic pictures (which would never be publishable in a UK newspaper) that accompany headlines of the latest narco-murder, and which, significantly, also accompany the paraphernalia of Christian death – exemplified by Christ’s death on the cross – here represented in a crucifixion scene I photographed yesterday in a Coyoacán church.

A bloodied Christ, with real hair.

None of this will be new to anyone who knows anything at all about Mexico, but for me the whole symbology of death, celebrated so vividly in fiestas such as the Day of the Dead – well, all fiestas in fact, as the essence of a fiesta is to defy death, to celebrate a momentary explosion in time, thereby provoking an attraction of opposites: the fiesta beckons death by celebrating life with fanatical and joyous hubris – is a topic definitively at odds with our Western denial of death, our sterilising and alienating distancing of everyday life from any possible contact with the unspeakable void that death represents.  But these are only preliminary thoughts on the topic, to which I may one day return.

At the Festival of the Book and the Rose, which I attended yesterday, as a guest of the Periódico de Poesía, the celebrations were adjusted at the last minute to make way for an homage to Gabriel García Márquez, pictured below, on a placard, flanked by yellow roses. I also learned that the University (UNAM) is home to 325,000 students: the same population, give or take a few dozen, as the city of Cardiff.

 

Gabo memorial

Gabo memorial

 

Poem stuck on wall lamenting the excess of celebration over Octavio Paz Centenary.

Poem stuck on wall lamenting the excess of celebration over Octavio Paz Centenary.

With Ana Franco of the Periódico de Poesía and novelist and interlocutor par excellence ,Jorge F. Hernández.

With Ana Franco of the Periódico de Poesía and novelist and interlocutor par excellence, Jorge F. Hernández.

 

Inglaterra? Really? A tragic misallocation of nationality or a simplification for the geographically challenged?.

Inglaterra? Really? A tragic misallocation of nationality or a simplification for the geographically challenged?.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dubious categories

19 Jan

In Agota Kristof’s wonderful novel The Third Lie, Claus – or is it Lucas, his anagrammatic twin (the two central characters are indissoluble, or aspects of one and the same person) – spends his nights writing in a notebook. One day, his landlady asks:

“What I want to know is whether you write things that are true or things that are made up.”

I answer that I try to write true stories but at a given point the story becomes unbearable because of its very truth, and then I have to change it. I tell her that I try to tell my story but all of a sudden I can’t – I don’t have the courage, it hurts too much. And so I embellish everything and describe things not as they happened but the way I wish they had happened.

After writing a book of creative nonfiction (I love the way a genre is defined by what it is not – as though ‘fiction’ were somehow the default mode of prose writing), one rather smug person of my acquaintance informed me that he had enjoyed the memoir, but had not been so taken by the fictional parts.

Were there fictional parts? I asked. Oh yes, this keen critic observed, of course there were.

Needless to say, this got me wondering. I could have retorted by quoting Joan Didion, who once wrote:

“Not only have I always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters.”

Or I might have cited Gabriel García Márquez:

“Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.”

The point is, there is a fine distinction between the literalism of ‘what really happened’ – which is in any case not provable – and the way in which I happen to remember, conjecture and write. Does it simply boil down to a distinction between ‘true things’ and ‘things that are made up’? That seems horribly reductive. What about all the stuff that happens in between?

In the documentary film Patience, Christopher MacLehose tells an anecdote about the publication of Max Sebald’s Rings of Saturn. Sebald was required to state what category of work the book should be shelved under – a standard requirement made by booksellers, and he was dismayed that he had to choose a category: did he want the book filed under biography, history, apocalypse studies, memoir, travel or fiction? – All of them, he said, all of them.

 

 

 

 

 

Juan Rulfo and the terror of the blank page

4 Jan

 Juan Rulfo and accomplice

Juan Rulfo and accomplice.

This morning, after a restless night, I spent a couple of hours picking up books from the shelves around my room, almost at random, dipping into them, dropping them on the floor, where I will find them later and replace them, equally randomly, between new and often unsuitable neighbours. Sometimes I stop and write down a line or two in a notebook, then move on. When I look at the notebook some days from now, I will be curious to know what the point of all this is.

Following a recent discussion about writers who stop writing, and of writers who kill their darlings (see last post, 1 Jan), I start thinking about the Mexican writer and photographer Juan Rulfo, and return, in my grazing, to Pedro Páramo, a brilliant and perplexing short novel, which, on its appearance in 1955 made such a profound impression on the Hispanic literary world, from Borges to Asturias to García Márquez. (Readers of Spanish can find the latter’s account of his discovery of Rulfo’s book here).

I read Pedro Páramo some years ago and return to it now with curiosity, because my memory of it, I discover, is as vague and dreamlike as the book itself.

According to Susan Sontag, in her introduction to the English translation, by Margaret Sayers Peden:

Rulfo has said that he carried Pedro Páramo inside him for many years before he knew how to write it. Rather, he was writing hundreds of pages and then discarding them. He once called the novel an exercise in elimination.

“The practice of writing the short story disciplined me,” he said, “and made me see the need to disappear and to leave my characters the freedom to talk at will, which provoked, it would seem, a lack of structure. Yes, there is a structure in Pedro Páramo, but it is a structure made of silences, of hanging threads, of cut scenes, where everything occurs in a simultaneous time which is a no-time.”

Rulfo’s life, as well as his book, has become legendary. He left behind only around 300 pages of writing; but those pages, according to García Márquez, are as important to us as the 300 or so extant pages of Sophocles – an extraordinary claim, you might think. Rulfo published his books in early middle age (there is a collection of short stories, translated as The Burning Plain, and another short novel, Ell gallo de oro), but for the next 30 years he did not publish anything, although he had taken up photography in the 1940s and continued taking (and occasionally publishing) pictures throughout his life. He was an inveterate traveller, and drinker. He destroyed the long awaited second novel, La Cordillera, a few years before his death at the age of 68 in 1986. Since his death his widow has overseen the publication of his notebooks, and fragments from the unfinished novel, although, as she confesses in her introduction to the notebooks, Rulfo would not have approved, and that she felt she might be doing “something awful” in publishing them.

Juan Rulfo explained his long literary silence in an interview as follows: “Writing causes me to undergo tremendous anxiety. The empty white page is a terrible thing.”

 

 

 

 

 

‘Terra Nostra’ by Carlos Fuentes

17 May

Incredible the first animal that dreamed of another animal. Monstrous the first vertebrate that succeeded in standing on two feet and thus spread terror among the beasts still normally and happily crawling close to the ground through the slime of creation. Astounding the first telephone call, the first boiling water, the first song, the first loincloth.

Carlos Fuentes, who died this week, wrote a great number of novels and stories, as well as some exceptionally fine essays. He was, along with Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, Alejo Carpentier and Octavio Paz, representative of a generation of Latin American authors who took the world by storm in the 1960s and 70s.

My first and most lasting encounter with Fuentes took place when I was 22 years old and recovering from an accident, when I read the fabulous and hallucinatory Terra Nostra, the opening lines of which are reproduced above. In spite of the far greater success of his other novels, such as The Death of Artemio Cruz, Change of Skin and The Old Gringo (made into a movie with Gregory Peck), for me it is Terra Nostra, a sprawling, futuristic epic, concerned with the beginnings of Europe’s occupation of America, the phantom marriage of Elizabeth, Queen of England, with Phillip II of Spain, and dark investigations into medieval Paris, all tied up and shaken (as far as I can remember) with lashing of surrealist humour and a good deal of neo-baroque terror, that will summarize  Fuentes’ achievement.

Funnily enough, Andrés Neuman’s description of his own novel, Traveller of the Century, as ‘a futuristic novel that happens in the past’ comes to mind as an entirely appropriate description of Fuentes’ antecedent.

In his Introduction to the Dalkey Archive edition, Jorge Volpi writes: “Terra Nostra is not a simple novel. It is a malfunctioning time tunnel; the entrance to a labyrinth of mirrors; a hell – or a purgatory – in which all memories and echoes intermingle; the gigantic rotting place of history; a jig-saw puzzle put together incorrectly or Chinese boxes that become deeper every moment . . . the underwater tunnel that joins Europe and America; the black hole that connects past, present and future . . .”

I have Terra Nostra in front of me now, the 2003 edition, with an afterword by Milan Kundera. Nearly 800 pages of it, and the pages are big. I wonder if re-reading can ever re-capture the excitement and hunger of reading a great book the first time round? Maybe the pleasure of re-reading are entirely distinct from those of first-time discovery. Maybe I’ll just be disappointed. Maybe I’ll just peek inside, flick through the pages, see what leaps out . . .  perhaps this is a preferable way to revisit old favourite books and places.

Drake in the South Sea

2 Oct
Francis Drake entered in the city after the fa...

Image via Wikipedia

To schoolchildren of my generation, Sir Francis Drake was a hero, the epitome of English sangfroid, insisting on finishing his game of bowls before dealing with the Spanish Armada as it sailed up the Channel. It didn’t happen quite like that, of course, but who cares. The sea captains who forged the first imprint of Empire under Elizabeth the First have gone down here as great patriots, but are known to children in schools throughout Iberia and Latin America simply as pirates. In fact I remember looking through the history homework of my friend Nelson Pereira’s younger sister Elsa, while staying at their house outside Lisbon in 1983 and being shocked to see Drake being vilified in categorical terms. I imagine he doesn’t get much of a press in Irish school history books either, as he was involved in a massacre of 600 people during the English enforced plantation of Ulster in 1575. But that is how it goes: history is an imprecise art, dependent entirely on the perspective of the historian. Rather like fiction, in fact.

While in Argentina last month, I got into a lengthy discussion about the pirate Drake, and buccaneers of his ilk, on discovering that Drake entered the River Plate on his travels, and, I was told, sailed up the Paraná. I said to my companions that in Britain we did not speak of Drake as a pirate at all, not by any means, and that the first time I had heard him referred to in those terms was reading Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude:

“When the pirate Sir Francis Drake attacked Riohacha in the sixteenth century, Úrsula Iguarán’s great-great-grandmother became so frightened with the ringing of alarm bells and the firing of cannons that she lost control of her nerves and sat down on a lighted stove. The burns changed her into a useless wife for the rest of her days. She could only sit on one side, cushioned by pillows, and something strange must have happened to her way of walking, for she never walked again in public. She gave up all kinds of social activity, obsessed with the notion that her body gave off a singed odor. Dawn would find her in the courtyard, for she did not dare fall asleep lest she dream of the English and their ferocious attack dogs as they came through the windows of her bedroom to submit her to shameful tortures with their red-hot irons.”

The BBC history entry on Drake gives the bare outlines:

Francis Drake was born in Tavistock, Devon in around 1540 and went to sea at an early age. In 1567, Drake made one of the first English slaving voyages as part of a fleet led by his cousin John Hawkins, bringing African slaves to work in the ‘New World’. All but two ships of the expedition were lost when attacked by a Spanish squadron. The Spanish became a lifelong enemy for Drake and they in turn considered him a pirate.

In 1570 and 1571, Drake made two profitable trading voyages to the West Indies. In 1572, he commanded two vessels in a marauding expedition against Spanish ports in the Caribbean. He saw the Pacific Ocean and captured the port of Nombre de Dios on the Isthmus of Panama. He returned to England with a cargo of Spanish treasure and a reputation as a brilliant privateer. In 1577, Drake was secretly commissioned by Elizabeth I to set off on an expedition against the Spanish colonies on the American Pacific coast. He sailed with five ships, but by the time he reached the Pacific Ocean in October 1578 only one was left, Drake’s flagship the Pelican, renamed the Golden Hind. To reach the Pacific, Drake became the first Englishman to navigate the Straits of Magellan.

He travelled up the west coast of South America, plundering Spanish ports. He continued north, hoping to find a route across to the Atlantic, and sailed further up the west coast of America than any European. Unable to find a passage, he turned south and then in July 1579, west across the Pacific. His travels took him to the Moluccas, Celebes, Java and then round the Cape of Good Hope. He arrived back in England in September 1580 with a rich cargo of spices and Spanish treasure and the distinction of being the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe. Seven months later, Elizabeth knighted him aboard the Golden Hind, to the annoyance of the king of Spain.

In 1585, Drake sailed to the West Indies and the coast of Florida where he sacked and plundered Spanish cities. On his return voyage, he picked up the unsuccessful colonists of Roanoke Island off the coast of the Carolinas, which was the first English colony in the New World. In 1587, war with Spain was imminent and Drake entered the port of Cadiz and destroyed 30 of the ships the Spanish were assembling against the British. In 1588, he was a vice admiral in the fleet that defeated the Armada. Drake’s last expedition, with John Hawkins, was to the West Indies. The Spanish were prepared for him this time, and the venture was a disaster.

Drake died on 28 January 1596 of dysentery off the coast of Portobelo, Panama.

Apparently, before dying, he asked to be dressed in his full armour, which reminds me of the death by suicide of Captain Hans Langsdorff of the Graf Spee (see post of 22 September).

He was buried at sea in a lead coffin. Divers continue to search for the coffin.

Ernesto Cardenal

Last year I was looking at some of the lesser-known historical poems of the great Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal (born 1925), Sandinista, theologian, rebel priest, and translator of Ezra Pound into Spanish. I was struck by the rather Poundian flavour of some of these, and particularly taken by the following poem, written in the voice of a Spanish sea captain and based on a true account, in which Drake comes across as quite an honourable fellow, in spite of his terrible reputation.

 

 

 

DRAKE IN THE SOUTH SEA

                                                                        Realejo, 16th April 1579

For Rafael Heliodoro Valle

I set out from the port of Acapulco on the twenty-third of March

and steered a steady course until the fourth of April, a Saturday,

and half an hour before daybreak

we saw a ship draw alongside us

its sails and prow silver in the moonlight

and our helmsman shouted at them to make way

and they might as well have been sleeping, for they did not reply.

Another voice shouted over: FROM WHERE DOES YOUR SHIP SAIL?

and they answered, from Peru, and that it was the Miguel Angel

and then we heard trumpets and the firing of muskets

and they ordered me to board their boat

and I was taken to the Captain.

I found him pacing on the bridge

and I approached him and kissed his hands, and he said to me:

What gold or silver does your ship carry?

And I told him: None at all.

None, my lord, only my plates and cups.

After which he asked me if I knew the Viceroy,

and I told him that I did. And I asked the Captain

if he was truly Captain Drake,

and he said he was, the very same.

We stayed talking a long while, until it was time to eat

and he ordered me to sit at his side.

His plates and cups are silver, with golden borders,

adorned with his coat of arms.

He has many bottled perfumes and scented waters

which he says were given him by the Queen.

He always eats and drinks to the accompaniment of violins,

and takes with him painters who make pictures all along the coast.

He is a man of some twenty-four years, small, with a blonde beard,

He is a nephew of the pirate Juan Aquinas,

and he is one of the greatest sailors on the seas.

The following day, which was a Sunday, he dressed in great style,

And ordered his men to hoist banners

and pennants of many colours at the mastheads.

The bronze rings and chains and embellished handrails

and the lights of the quarterdeck

shone like gold.

The ship was a golden dragon among the dolphins.

And we went, with his page, to my ship, to see the coffers,

and he spent the whole day, until nightfall, inspecting my cargo.

What he took from me was not much,

a few baubles I owned,

and he gave me a cutlass and a small silver brazier for them

asking my forgiveness,

but that it was for his lady he had taken them,

and I was free to leave in the morning as soon as there was a breeze

and I thanked him for that,

and kissed his hands.

He carries in his galleon three thousand bars of silver

and three coffers filled with gold

and twelve great coffers of pieces of eight,

and he says they are heading for China

with navigation charts and a Chinese pilot they captured . . .

 

 

(Translation by Richard Gwyn, first published in Poetry Wales, Vol. 46 No. 3, Winter 2010/11)

 

 

 

How to write a novel in 13 points

2 Aug

Enrique Vila-Matas in the 1970s, when he was a lodger in the house of Marguerite Duras

Marguerite Duras (1914-1996)

Sometimes people ask really difficult questions. One of them, which crops up a lot, is ‘Who is your favourite living novelist’? First of all, it’s assumed it will be someone who writes in English, because the British and the Americans don’t read much translated fiction, whereas I do. The extraordinary arrogance of a publishing industry in which only 3% of fiction is non-English – leaving 97% for the English-language writers, might indicate a degree of imbalance, but no one apart from professional translators, who bang on about it the whole time, seems to be too bothered.

Other European countries do not suffer this degree of cultural solipsism, and translated works account for a much higher percentage of published works. Between 30% and 60% if the statistics are to be believed, though I read recently that in Italy 70% of published fiction is in translation. Unbelievably, these statistics receive comments such as one I heard from an English writer recently “Ah but the Italians can’t write fiction!” I could hardly believe my ears.

The fact that extraordinary novels are regularly published in the Hispanic world has filtered into the reading public’s consciousness since the rise of magic realism and the Latin American ‘boom’ generation writers, comprising García Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa – as well as their pale imitators such as Isabel Allende and the Brazilian Paulo Coelho – and more recently, the extraordinary international success of Roberto Bolaño. But even the compiling of such a list makes me uneasy. We in the UK have suffered nearly thirty years in which every new production from the tedious triad of Amis, McEwen and Rushdie is treated as though it were a gift of greatness, and perhaps we have lost all perspective of what is truly interesting in the world.

So, to cut to the quick, my favourite Spanish-language novelists – no, make that international novelists – all of them a few years younger than the three named above, would be Roberto Bolaño, Javier Marías and Enrique Vila-Matas. Bolaño, sadly, is no longer with us, and has received plenty of attention (both in the media and in this blog), and I am going to do a separate post on Javier Marías, so I would like to spend a little time on Enrique Vila-Matas, whose non-fiction novel Never any end to Paris was published by New Directions in the USA last week. I will be reviewing it when my copy arrives, but I have read the book in Spanish so I have a head start. The book describes Vila-Matas’ apprenticeship as a writer in Paris, the city to which he moved (from his native Barcelona) as a young man in the 1970s. He had the good fortune to rent a room in the apartment building belonging to the fabulous novelist and film-director (and alcoholic of epic and tragic proportions) Marguerite Duras. Early in the story Enrique bumps into Duras one day on the building’s stairway. Nervous and stammering, he asks her in his substandard and broken French for some advice on the novel he is writing (his first):

 

“Some advice, that I need, help for the novel.” Marguerite understood perfectly this time. “Ah, some advice”, she said, and she invited me to sit down in the foyer (as if considering me to be very tired), slowly put out her cigarette in the entrance hall ashtray, and headed, somewhat mysteriously, towards her office, from which she returned after a minute with a sheet of paper that resembled a medical note and which contained instructions that might – she told me, or I understood her to say – be useful to me in the writing of novels. I took the note and headed out onto the street. I read the instructions on it a little later, on the Rue Saint-Benoît, and felt at once the whole weight of the world on me, even today I recall the immense panic – the shudder, to be more precise – that I endured on reading them: 1. Problems of structure; 2. Unity and harmony; 3. Plot and history; 4. The time factor; 5. Textual effects; 6. Verisimilitude; 7. Narrative technique; 8. Character; 9. Dialogue; 10. Setting; 11. Style; 12. Experience; 13. Linguistic register.

 

Since I will review the book in due course, I won’t begin to summarize the hilarious convolutions and torments that the aspiring writer brings upon himself in his quest to fulfil Duras’s daunting stipulations while striving to imitate his literary heroes (notably Hemingway) in certain aspects of literary life – and not only quaffing and revelry – but I would urge anyone  – especially anybody who wants to learn about the writing life – to read the book.

Incredibly, only two other of Vila-Matas’ novels are available in English, both of them superbly translated by Jonathan Dunne. (The new book is translated by Anna McLean, and the above extract was my own hurried version, so she cannot be held responsible). These are Bartleby & Co. and Montano, published in 2004 and 2007 respectively. Bartleby & Co. inspired me profoundly during the writing of The Vagabond’s Breakfast, or rather it induced a state of mind that I could only render into prose by means of an extended metaphor. I reproduce the section below, with apologies to those readers who already know the passage. I realise it’s a bit of a cheat putting extracts from my own books on the blog, but a) it might help sell a few copies, and b) I need to pack for my holidays and have, as always, done absolutely nothing until the last minute. So, off we go:

 

 

While trying to avoid writing one afternoon, I decide that I want to clear my desk, in fact to clear it and thoroughly clean it. I begin by brushing and then wiping the poorly varnished surface with an anti-bacterial cloth. It still looks dirty; ingrained gubbins of all varieties spread across the desktop. I reach into the low cupboard that extends beneath the eaves of this attic room, find sandpaper and apply myself to the task, scraping away with fixed determination. I begin thinking of the story I am supposed to be writing, of the book review I have promised to deliver, of the poems that lie unfinished in a drawer, but mostly I fall to thinking about the very act of writing, and how it consumes my life in so many ways, most of them satisfying in one sense or another; I like to write, I enjoy what my friend Niall Griffiths calls the glorious mix of exhaustion and exhilaration that come at the end of a good session, the almost trancelike state one enters when entirely absorbed in the life of a character or a place, of having captured some small truth and transcribed it successfully so that a total stranger, on reading it, can nod or laugh in recognition of something shared, or something learned, though possibly always known. But the downside, the part that most writers dread, is the seemingly interminable agony one enters when, for some reason or other, one is kept from writing, either by illness, other work, or a general reluctance to face the blank screen; or else besieged by the feeling that whatever one writes has been said before, and probably better, elsewhere, and yet the terrible arrogance of the author, the desire to act God, that insistent striving to give voice, will not subside.

In this condition, I find myself considering the plight of Bartleby, as described by Enrique Vila-Matas in his book of that name. Bartleby is the type of those who are conditioned to write, for whom writing is default behaviour, and yet who, when asked to perform a particular job or favour, will answer, as a matter of principle, I would prefer not to, regardless of the question, and who, in similar vein, will courageously decline to write at all, although deemed to be a ‘writer’ in the eyes of the world. Vila-Matas has researched the type well:

“For some time now I have been investigating the frequent examples of Bartleby’s syndrome in literature, for some time I have studied the illness, the disease endemic to contemporary letters, the negative impulse or attraction towards nothingness that means that certain creators, while possessing a very demanding literary conscience (or perhaps precisely because of this), never manage to write: either they write one or two books and then stop altogether or, working on a project, seemingly without problems, one day they become paralysed for good.”

Vila-Matas does not regard the state of being a Bartleby to be quite beyond hope. There is a glimmer on the horizon, and he contrives, in some way, to conjure an (as yet) invisible text out of the footnotes he has prepared for it. “I wonder if I can do this,” he writes. “I am convinced that only by tracking down the labyrinth of the No can the paths still open to the writing of the future appear. I wonder if I can evoke them.” He occupies himself, over the course of the book, by investigating these writers of the No, giving cameo performances to writers with an overdeveloped sense of the absurdity of their vocation, or with an extraordinary capacity for prevarication and delay.

The list of writers that Vila-Matas compiles of Bartlebys past and present is extensive and includes such luminaries as Rimbaud, Walser, Gil de Biedma and Salinger, even Beckett. There is a peculiar sense in which these writers turn the act of not-writing into a virtue, of which it is hard not to be envious. One of the most outstanding examples is Joseph Joubert, a Frenchman who lived in the eighteenth century and who “discovered a delightful place where he could digress and end up not writing a book at all.” Although he lived to be seventy, Joubert “never wrote a book. He only prepared himself to write one, single-mindedly searching for the right conditions. Then he forgot this purpose as well.” Ah, the nefarious comforts of silence! Some of Vila-Matas’ writers of the No, such as Robert Walser, the shy and reclusive author of The Walk, turn not-writing itself into a topic of their oeuvre (Walser spent the last twenty years of his life as the inmate of an asylum for the insane, as such institutions were then known). The dedication with which Walser and others pursued their calling raises the frightening possibility that I am not yet good enough, or sufficiently dedicated, to be a Bartleby; that despite my good intentions, to fail so self-consciously, and in so spectacular a way as to provoke the admiration of other, more orthodox writers (those who put pen to paper) is itself an achievement beyond my skills and powers of endurance.

By now I am scrubbing so hard that most of the surface is spotless; the dirty varnish is gone and I am sanding raw wood. The desk is a large one; I have covered a big area and am still going strong. The thought occurs to me that if I just keep on sandpapering that desk, it will eventually cease to exist. I could entirely transform my room (the desk, as I have said, is substantial) and in the process, as I scrape away in this alchemical act of molecular disassembly, of making something disappear, of making nothing out of something, I will consider the book I am writing, measuring it out in my mind, scene by scene, chapter by chapter, so that by the time I have rasped away the last grains of sawdust from the last chip of wood, being all that remains of what was once my desk, I will be ready to continue. True, I would no longer have a desk to write it on, I would have to sit in the armchair and use a notebook or the laptop, but that would surely be a small loss compared with the relief of knowing the outcome of my story. And at least I have the laptop, which is just as well, seeing as my handwriting has become quite illegible, I can hardly make it out, and even when I concentrate and force myself to write very slowly the result resembles nothing but a spider-trail of flattened hieroglyphs. My typing isn’t up to much either, but at least I can read what I have written and stand a much better chance of guessing my own intentions despite all the typos and unintentional neologisms that occupy the screen, underlined in green and red. It is frustrating, but I have to put up with this disability, just as I endure the laborious task of reading, for even though reading remains a pleasure, it is one that stretches my powers of concentration to the limit and recently it took me three weeks to read a short novel, simply because I had to re-read every paragraph several times in order to retain the gist of whatever was going on, and neither was it a particularly demanding book; the same thing happens whether I am reading philosophy or a detective novel. This is hard for me, since I have always had good powers of retention, and it feels strange and disempowering to be struggling through the page like a seven-year old, and remembering not a thing.

From The Vagabond’s Breakfast (pp 56-59)

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